|January 1942 Fifth Naval District Map showing successful U-boat kills off the coast of the Virginia Capes and Cape Hatteras. (Click image to enlarge)|
It is January at the museum, when cold weather slows visitation. Nothing was slow 70 years ago this month when the Battle of the Atlantic came to Norfolk – or more broadly speaking, to the 5th Naval District, a Navy administrative area stretching across the mid-Atlantic region. Its headquarters were at the Naval Operating Base, the installation now known as the Norfolk Naval Station.This location was deliberate, since Commandant of the 5th Naval District also commanded the Naval Operating Base. In January 1942 German U-boats brought their campaign to cripple Allied shipping to the Atlantic seaboard (which the Germans labeled the campaign Paukenschlag, which loosely translates in English as "Drumbeat"). One day alone, January 19, witnessed a swath of destruction across the shipping lanes near Cape Hatteras: SS Lady Hawkins torpedoed, (250 killed); SS City of Atlanta torpedoed, (44 killed); SS Malay torpedoed, shelled, damaged; SS Ciltvaria, torpedoed and sunk.
The reaction of the local Navy commanders to this crisis is detailed in an official report held by the museum: “War Record of the Fifth Naval District 1942.” These 542 typed pages, held in a standard issue Navy green binder, were compiled per the direction of Rear Admiral Manley H. Simons, who was Commandant during the fateful year. (He also simultaneously served as the Commander of the Chesapeake Task Force of the Eastern Sea Frontier.) The report was described by the anonymous staff officers who wrote it as “a digest of verbal accounts, written stories, and reports of officers and men who have taken part in Fifth Naval District war operations during 1942." Its purpose was to “capture the Fifth Naval District’s participation in the U-boat campaign of 1942.”
While the Battle of the Atlantic’s military actions are well documented, the “War Record” does provide a contemporary point of view, and also details the wide responsibilities of the Navy staff. These included assembling all the basic building blocks of military intelligence such as first-hand accounts of enemy actions, charts, and photographs. At one point on January 28 one naval district officer was dispatched to the burning hulk of the unfortunate SS Empire Gem, abandoned after an enemy attack off Cape Hatteras to retrieve “routing instructions, zigzag tables, confidential books, and Navy merchant codes” from the wheelhouse. He found “the entire wheelhouse, chart room and bridge quarters under water … Thus it was impossible to obtain the papers.”